The welfare and value of dairy calves “are profoundly affected by the breeding strategy of dairy farmers” and “calf management protocols” that are operated on dairy farms, according to Frank O’Mara, director of research at Teagasc.

As the 2019 breeding season is due to start on most dairy farms over the next month, O’Mara says it is important that dairy farmers have “a clear breeding policy in place, as it will have a significant influence on their farm’s future profitability”.

According to the Teagasc expert, “all breeding policies should have three main objectives.”

These include:
  • Continue to use high EBI AI genetics to increase the EBI of your herd;
  • Match the number of dairy-bred female calves born to specific farm requirements;
  • And maximise the use of beef crossing in the dairy herd, increasing the potential value of the resulting calves by selecting beef AI bulls using the Dairy Beef Index.

“The Irish dairy industry has benefited enormously from the increase in the EBI of the national herd since its establishment in 2001,” he said.

To continue seeing the benefits of the EBI system, O’Mara recommends: “Selecting a team of AI bulls with an average EBI of greater than €270 from the ICBF [Irish Cattle Breeding Federation] Active Bull List taking cognisance of relatedness, reliability and herd size.

“When selecting which animals to breed off, maiden heifers are ideal candidates for breeding the next generation of replacement heifer calves.

“They usually have the highest EBI and can be managed so that they mainly calve in the first two weeks of the calving season. As a result, the calves born are high EBI, early born and compactly calved.

“The choice of suitable AI sires for replacement heifers has increased over the last number of years without compromising on EBI.

“When selecting cows for breeding replacements, they should be selected based on their calving date [early or late], EBI and performance. If a compactly calved herd is not increasing their herd size, a proportion of the mature cows can be bred to beef AI from the start of the breeding season.

Reduction of dairy-bred calves required

“Dairy cow numbers have increased significantly over the last five to six years. This rapid increase in the size of the national dairy herd is currently slowing down.

“Many dairy farmers can generate sufficient dairy replacements in the first three to five weeks of the breeding season,” highlighted Frank.

The precise number of replacements required, however, depends on whether the size of the individual herd is increasing or stable, how fertile the herd is and how successful the farmer is at calving heifers at two years-of-age.

“This spring, farmers experienced firsthand a challenging market for dairy calves, which should influence their breeding decisions during the upcoming breeding season.

“Being able to sell calves quickly and easily is an important consideration, particularly in compactly calved and in larger dairy herds. Reducing the number of low-value dairy calves born will help,” outlined O’Mara.

The Teagasc representative states that “this can be achieved in three ways”:
  • Through calving over 90% of dairy heifer calves at two years-of-age;
  • Seriously consider using sexed semen where bulls of very poor beef merit are being used;
  • Only use beef stock bulls for the last few weeks of the breeding season.

“Increasing the proportion calving at two years-of-age will reduce the number of heifer calves required and increase the number of cows available for breeding to beef AI.

“It’s important to note that if you use sexed semen that conception rates could be lower.

“This can be managed by using sexed semen early on in the breeding season on the more fertile, earlier calved cows and on maiden heifers.

“Many dairy farmers use AI for eight to 10 weeks, with the remaining two to four weeks a stock bull is used. It’s important that the stock bull used should be of beef genetics, easy calving and short gestation,” explained O’Mara.

Use DBI to select beef AI bulls

The DBI (Dairy Beef Index) is a breeding goal “to promote high-quality beef cattle bred from the dairy herd with minimal consequences on the calving difficulty or gestation of the dairy cow”.

“The DBI ranks beef bulls, for use in the dairy herd, according to their genetic merit for calving and carcass performance traits.

“Expressed in euros, each €1 increase in DBI can be interpreted as a €1 expected increase in profit for that bull’s progeny.

“When selecting beef AI sires using the DBI, it is important to consider what components are contributing to an individual sire’s DBI value when selecting suitable bulls for dairy heifers and dairy cows,” according to O’Mara.

Calf welfare

“Once calves are born next spring, it is important to have an excellent feeding and management plan in place for all newborn calves, including surplus or beef calves,” he said.

According to O’Mara this will ensure healthy, strong calves are available for sale and it will also increase the chances of receiving a better price for these surplus calves.